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Demolishing Eight Common Excuses People Make for NSA Mass Surveillance

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By Cindy Cohn and Trevor Timm 

(image by ElectronicFrontierFoundation)   DMCA

We've heard from lots of folks who  are passionately concerned about the NSA's mass spying, but are struggling to get their friends and family to understand the problem and join the over a half-million people who have demanded change through  and elsewhere.

Of course, you can show them the Stop Watching Us video and this great segment from Stephen Colbert. And if you'd like a detailed refresher on all the ways NSA is conducing mass surveillance, ProPublica has a handy explainer here.

You can also check out this new video from filmmaker Brian Knappenberger (writer and director of We Are Legion: the Story of the Hacktivists):

Note: clicking this thumbnail will take you to the New York Times' website.

But you also need to be prepared to respond to the common refrains of folks confused, nonplussed, or simply exhausted from the headlines. So here's a cheat sheet to help you talk about the NSA spying when you're with family and friends.

I have nothing to hide from the government, so why should I worry?

There are a few ways to respond to this, depending on what you think will work best for the person raising the question.

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  • Point out how mass surveillance leaves you at the mercy of not only the NSA, but also to the DEA, the FBI and even the IRS. We know that the government claims that any evidence of a "crime" can be sent to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. 
  • Tell them that, even if you don't think you have something to hide, it's possible the government thinks you do, or can create some concern about you (or your friends or loved ones). There are so many laws and regulations on the books, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said the Congressional Research Service did not have the resources to count them all.  One legal expert has argued that the average person likely commits three felonies a day without ever realizing. So, you may be technically breaking a law you have no idea about.
  • We all benefit from a system that allows privacy. For example, when journalists can speak to sources without the specter of surveillance, helping fuel investigative journalism and the free flow of information. And this is not just a hypothetical--the Department of Justice subpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press journalists in an effort to track down government whistleblowers. And it's not just journalists. Activists, political organizers, lawyers, individuals conducting sensitive research, businesses that want to keep their strategies confidential, and many others rely on secure, private, surveillance-free communication.

Isn't the NSA using the mass spying to stop terrorists?

Even the NSA cannot point to a single terrorist attack they've stopped using the Patriot Act phone surveillance program that sweeps up virtually every phone record in the United States. They've thrown out many numbers claiming that the information was helpful in some capacity, including repeatedly claiming that it thwarted some 54 attacks, but those numbers have been thoroughly debunked.

The only remaining example the NSA points to is known as the "Zazi case." However, in that case, the Associated Press reported that the government could have easily stopped the plot without the NSA program, under authorities that comply with the Constitution. Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been saying this for a long time.

That's the point here: we can stop terrorists with law enforcement authorities that this country has been using for decades. We don't need to upend the Constitution to keep the nation safe.

The government will not abuse its power.

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Some people believe that the government will never abuse its power, especially when the party they support is in office.  You should remind these people that the government has a long history of overstretching its surveillance powers and using that information to try to blackmail people. Example of this include the NSA spying on Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and even some sitting senators in the 1960s. Imagine how Sen. Joe McCarthy's investigations might have gone if he had access to this kind of spying.

We already have evidence of abuse of power. We know that the NSA analysts were using their surveillance powers to track their ex-wives and husbands, and other love interests. They even had a name for it, LOVEINT.  The FISA court has also cited the NSA for violating or ignoring court orders for years at a time. And those are just self-reported abuses. An independent investigation might reveal even more.

Allowing mass spying is patriotic.

Stopping untargeted seizure of information is one of the key reasons we fought the War of Independence and drafted the Fourth Amendment.  During colonial times, the "crime" was tax evasion--remember the Boston Tea Party?  The British crown issued Writs of Assistance, which were general warrants that allowed the British authorities to search through anyone's papers in order to find those who were skirting the taxes.  American patriot James Otis Jr. argued against the "hated writs" but lost his case in the British courts.  John Adams noted that from that case, "the child independence was born."  

Since that time, warrants have had to specify the persons and places searched. Mass surveillance by the NSA does neither.  In short, one of our countries' founding principles is the prohibition on mass searches and seizures.

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